Word torturer: The further Tony Abbott has climbed up the political ladder, the worse he has become as a communicator. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
Hearing the Prime Minister speaking about “no terrorism tourism on the taxpayer” last week when he was announcing new controls over welfare payments to Australians overseas convinced me that my topic this week had to be the Prime Minister’s speech. He’s not fighting stuttering, like George VI in The King’s Speech, but he does have a delivery problem.
When Tony Abbott was a junior minister in the Howard government I saw him in action at a stakeholder dinner. He put his prepared speech in his pocket and then spoke off the cuff. He spoke fluently and in a way that really connected with his audience. I have always thought that this ability to connect was one of Abbott’s real strengths compared with other aspiring political leaders. It made him seem real.
There was of course a not so attractive aspect of the old Abbott that surfaced in some of his exchanges with his Opposition opponents, such as Nicola Roxon, and in some of his speeches to Liberal party branches. That Abbott could be undisciplined and sometimes crude. But there was still a freshness about his approach that appealed to many people.
It was the lack of discipline that worried his colleagues when he became Opposition Leader. Many of them thought he would be a risk in the top job because of his propensity to slip up. The Labor government were confident that he would go off the rails and self-destruct before too long.
We know now that this did not happen and that Abbott proved to be a most disciplined and successful Opposition Leader, seeing off both Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard before becoming Prime Minister last September.
But the success came at a cost to the old Abbott. With hindsight there were aspects of the changing character of the new Prime Minister that have had a longer-term downside. There is a lesson here for all political leaders.
The first was that the demands of discipline eliminated an attractive element of spontaneity. Everything became so measured and careful even to the extent that sometimes the Opposition Leader chose silence over answering a question that seemed to contain pitfalls. He even argued on the 7.30 Report that human frailty meant that a leader’s words couldn’t be trusted. Don’t believe everything a leader says unless it is written down, he warned.
The second was that as the election got closer the Opposition Leader began to speak in soundbites and three-word slogans such as “Stop the Boats” and “Axe the Tax”. This campaign tactic was so successful that it was credited with defeating Labor and winning the election. But it was a style made for campaigning and not for governing. It should have been packed away after the election, but it was not.
Abbott the Prime Minister now has his own distinctive delivery style that owes its origins to the earlier period. Its characteristics mean that he is not the good communicator that he once was. That can happen to political leaders as the experience of Julia Gillard showed.
Among the many reasons given for Gillard’s downfall was her wooden delivery. As Prime Minister she became boring and unable to communicate in a lively fashion. This seemed at odds with how she communicated in private and previously as a more junior politician. Only on rare occasions, such as her famous misogyny speech, did we get to see a more fiery, natural and spontaneous “real Julia”.
There are surprising parallels with how Tony Abbott’s public delivery has evolved over the years. He and his advisers had better watch out that he is not pigeon-holed as a poor communicator.
The new Abbott presents to the public as programmed rather than spontaneous, tortured not fluent. It is not an attractive look and elicits frequent negative comments. He sounds like he is over-trained. It may be an attempt at gravitas but it is not successful.
There are three elements to the new look. The first is caution. This derives from the search for discipline at all costs. Leaders are instructed to avoid slip-ups. Better to be bland, boring and repetitive than open to factual errors or inconsistency. Leaders have to be on message 24/7. The 3T message “no terrorism tourism on the taxpayer” was delivered not just once but twice. Repetition rules.
The second is soundbites and slogans. These soundbites always come across as unnatural because they have been prepared by a central media team. They can be easily mocked, especially when other ministers follow the leader by using the same terminology. A recent instance of this was the commentary by government ministers on the possibility of “adjustments” to the budget as a result of negotiations with the Senate. There are many ways of saying this but minister after minister used exactly the same words. They sounded like parrots.
The third element is combativeness. The nature of Opposition is to always criticise the government. Up to a point this is a successful negative strategy. But when it becomes a case of a government always criticising the Opposition it loses its effectiveness. Abbott’s speech-making has still not graduated from Opposition to government.
My general conclusion is that Prime Minister Abbott could do with a dose of the old Tony. Furthermore, the weaknesses in his public speaking style can be found in some ways in other political leaders. It is one of the reasons why the public turn off from major political leaders, including Bill Shorten, and become increasingly attracted to minor party leaders, such as Clive Palmer. The latter demonstrate greater spontaneity and are not trained to within an inch of their lives.
John Warhurst is an emeritus professor of political science at the Australian National University.